Baseball's current labor turmoil brings to mind the major leagues' first strike, back in 1912. Precipitated by the temperamental Ty Cobb, it set the stage for perhaps the weirdest game ever played and resulted in at least one record that still stands -- most runs allowed by a pitcher in a single game (24 ).
The nearly forgotten incident featured a hastily assembled group of collegians and sandlotters who became the "Detroit Tigers" for a day, only to be summarily dispatched by the world champion Philadelphia Athletics, 24-2. The victim on the mound was Aloysius Travers, a 20-year-old junior at St. Joseph's College who had never before pitched anywhere -- and who promptly returned to his studies en route to a 55-year career in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Cobb had triggered what was to become the only mid-season strike in major league history a few days earlier at the old Polo Grounds during an 8-4 Detroit victory over the New York Highlanders. Incensed by heckling from the crowd, he had stormed into the stands, kicking and spiking one fan during the ensuing altercation.
Unfortunately for Cobb, American League president Ban Johnson witnessed the action, which had shattered the otherwise peaceful sunny afternoon of May 15. He ordered that Cobb be suspended indefinitely, pending a complete investigation of the incident.
The Tigers had plenty of time to think about his banishment when their game was rained out the following day in Philadelphia. Before winning a 6-3 decision from the A's the next afternoon -- a Friday -- the Detroit players drafted a petition to Johnson demanding Cobb's immediate reinstatement, because, in their words, "No one could stand such personal abuse from anyone."
Every member of the club except manager Hughey Jennings. Wild Bill Donovan, Del Gainor, and Cobb signed the petition. Furthermore, the players said that Cobb must be returned to the lineup in time for the next day's game or there would be no game.
Johnson received the telegraphed petition in Cincinnati, where he had gone to attend dedication ceremonies at the opening of the Reds' new grandstand. He immediately issued a statement: Cobb's suspension stood.
By now, Philadelphia newspapers were full of strike stories. When the Tigers arrived at Shibe Park on Saturday morning, May 18, they learned that the suspension was still on. Thye also found the stands packed -- some 20,000 curiosity-seekers were on hand to see if the strike would actually come off. Jennings pleaded with his players but they stood behind Cobb and stalked off the field.
Anticipating the walkout, a local sportswriter had helped Jennings round up a group of sandlotters and collegians who played for a team called the "Park Sparrows." As they understood it, A's owner Connie Mack had agreed to postpone the game if indeed the Tigers did strike, but Detroit had to put 12 players on the field in uniform to avoid a forfeit, a $5,000 fine by the league, and possible loss of the franchise.
"We never really expected to play," Travers recalled shortly before his death in 1968, "even after the Tigers came off the field and gave us their uniforms. But Connie Mack was never one to let an easy victory get by. I guess he had second thoughts about postponing the game when he saw how pathetic we looked."
The game was a fiasco. Travers threw nothing but slow curbes ("the only pitch I knew how to throw"), and the A's belted him for 26 hits -- including six triples and four doubles. They stole 10 bases and drew seven walks. Future Hall of Famer Eddie Collins fattened his .340 batting average by going 5-for-6, with five stolen bases. "When anyone on our side got to the ball, they usually threw it away," said Travers, whose third baseman that day was playing in his first baseball game ever.m
The offensive hero for the Park Sparrows, with two of their four hits (both triples), was Ed Irwin, a catcher who had been released to the minors by the Phillies the previous day. He was available because the Phillies had not furnished transportation to Roanoke, Va. Manager Jennings struck out as a pinch hitter for Travers in the ninth inning.
Only one of the sandlotters would ever play another big league game. Bill Maharg, an exprizefighter, appeared in one game as an outfielder for the Phillies four eyars later and went hitless.
Johnson was incensed. He called off the Tigers-A's games scheduled for Sunday and Monday and ordered all principals involved to a meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the situation. Detroit's players told Frank Navin, the president of the club, that they intended to remain on strike until Cobb was reinstated. Johnson warned the Tigers that they would be banned from baseball for life if they did not play their next game, schedled in Washington on Tuesday afternoon. Then Cobb intervened. He expressed appreciation to his teammates for supporting him but pointed out that they wer jeopardizing their careers. He suggested that they resume playing. Reluctantly, the players agreed.
The tigers took the train for Washington on Monday night and shut out the Senators, 2-0, the next aftere as George Mullin beat Walter Johnson. Cobb watched the game from the stands and wasn't reinstated until the following Sunday after completing a 10-day suspension. The Tigers who signed the petition were fined $100 each. Cobb was assessed $50.